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Mr. Llwyd: What the Minister says is right, and I have seen the improvement in my constituency. Some 10 days ago, a consultation document on subsidy was published, yet the Bill will go into Committee without our knowing what recommendations come out of that consultation. Is that not unfortunate timing? Surely subsidy is an important word in the context of the Bill.
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Ms Winterton: How we deliver the bus service operators grant in future is important, and that is open to consultation. It would not have been right to delay the whole Bill until we had been through the consultation and then examine the Bill in that context; things can be done the other way round. We know that powers in the Bill will give local authorities and bus operators the ability to move forward together. If the hon. Gentleman were to examine the consultation document, he would see that it contains a few suggestions as to how the grant might be used to support the increased usage of bus services. So, it would not have been right to wait until the whole thing had been finished before considering the Bill.

Mrs. Villiers rose—

Ms Winterton: I shall give way to the hon. Lady, but then I ought to move on.

Mrs. Villiers: Does the Minister agree that the major bus success stories in the country have been brought about by voluntary partnerships, and not by the statutory partnerships or quality contracts proposed in the Bill?

Hon. Members: No.

Ms Winterton: My hon. Friends said it all. If the hon. Lady thinks that the current situation is perfect, I do not understand how she can be talking to her constituents or those of other hon. and right hon. Members in her party. Voluntary partnerships have worked in some cases. In cities such as York and Cambridge, and sometimes in rural areas such as Warwickshire and Cheshire, bus services have been transformed and are consequently attracting growing numbers of passengers. Such examples show that people will return to buses if services are improved through effective partnership working between bus operators and local authorities, but for each place where partnership is making a real difference, there are many others where that is not the case and where more still needs to be done to provide the services that people want. I find it astonishing that the Conservative party does not recognise that.

Barbara Keeley (Worsley) (Lab): I agree with the Minister, and I want to see how we can move forward from this position. I have delivered petitions to this House from my constituents because bus services have been savagely cut in my constituency by First. I am looking forward to hearing her tell us more about how local authorities can move forward on the contracts and bus partnerships, because large parts of my constituency have no bus services any more.

Ms Winterton: My hon. Friend is right, and her comments show that she is in touch with the needs of her constituents. She recognises that although voluntary partnerships can work in some areas, in others they do not and more needs to be done. We know that more needs to be done, and that is what the Bill is all about.

Several hon. Members rose

Ms Winterton: I shall give way first to my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead).

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Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): Is the Minister aware of the existence of an inter-authority organisation called the Partnership for Urban South Hampshire—PUSH—which has undertaken considerable discussion on the question of integrated transport arrangements? It would be interested in the possibility of becoming an integrated transport authority under the terms of the Bill. Is she aware that the majority of PUSH’s members are Conservative-controlled authorities? Does she share my concern that the Conservative party appears to wish to vote against the entire Bill and thus to deny those authorities the opportunity to provide the sort of integrated transport system that I believe south Hampshire urgently needs?

Ms Winterton: Again, my hon. Friend makes an important point. I know from my visits around the country that politicians from all parties say that they would like to have greater powers in order to sit down with bus operators and make progress on schemes of exactly the type that he is talking about. He will know that the Bill gives areas the ability to examine their governance arrangements and to decide whether they want to establish integrated transport authorities. He rightly says that, again, the Conservative party does not seem to be in touch even with its own local councillors on this issue, because its approach does not reflect my experience when going around the country—all I can say is that perhaps Conservative Members need to get out a little bit more.

Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD) rose—

Ms Winterton: I shall come back to the hon. Gentleman in a minute.

The Bill is a direct response to what local authorities, transport users and, in some cases, transport operators have told us about the different challenges and circumstances faced in different parts of the country. In the summer of 2006, the Government launched a wide-ranging review of bus services across the country. In December 2006, we published our conclusions in “Putting Passengers First”, and in May 2007, we published the draft Local Transport Bill. That was followed by a period of consultation. As I said, I made a series of regional visits to listen to people’s views about how the draft Bill could help in their areas and to their suggestions about how it could be further improved.

As a result of our public consultation and scrutiny, including a report from the Transport Committee, we were able to make some very significant improvements to the Bill before it was introduced to Parliament, including the following: taking powers to set up a statutory body to represent bus passengers; ensuring that the provisions of the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations, following representations from the trade unions, apply where staff are affected by a quality contract scheme; and giving traffic commissioners the power to require operators to invest in improvements or compensate passengers where services are not operating properly. The Bill was introduced in the other place in November, where it benefited from further changes, including measures to boost community transport and to improve the accessibility of taxi buses.

Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey) (Lab): Further to the comments by the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers), is it not the case that the voluntary
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agreements that she extols exist solely on the basis of terms dictated by the bus operators and tend to be concentrated on a minority of highly profitable corridors?

Ms Winterton: There are several instances in which voluntary agreements have been reached, but my hon. Friend is right to say that we need to look further at how we can increase the effectiveness of these agreements. That is what the Bill sets out to do. I know that he has been extremely concerned about local bus services in his area, and it is important that authorities are able to work with bus operators to reach an agreement. The Bill will give such agreements statutory force and I will describe later how that will make these partnerships more effective.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): May I tempt my right hon. Friend to go a little further? Is there not a case for giving excellent transport authorities such as South Yorkshire passenger transport authority the ability to introduce quality contracts, without reference to external organisations, just as the Mayor of London can do? If she will not go that far, will she at least listen to the Transport Committee, which said that there should be a time limit on how long applications for quality contracts should be considered by the approvals board and the transport tribunal to prevent inordinate delays that would not be in the interests of bus passengers?

Ms Winterton: I will address that particular point when I move on to some of the details of the Bill, but I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes.

Mark Hunter: I share the Minister’s surprise that the Conservatives have apparently decided to vote against Second Reading. She has emphasised the importance of the quality contracts and the quality partnership agreements, but if they are so important why has there been such a dismally low take-up so far? What will the Government do about that?

Ms Winterton: As I said earlier, there were powers in the Transport Act 2000 to allow the making of quality contracts and some partnership schemes. The problem with the quality contracts was that the threshold was set too high. That is the feedback that we have received. In a sense, that is why we are replacing the test of the only practical way of delivering services with the public interest test. The intention was to be able to make the quality contracts possible, in a similar way to some of the arrangements in London, but unfortunately that did not happen in several areas and that is why we are changing the situation. It was a good attempt, but we recognise that it has shortcomings.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): My right hon. Friend mentioned community transport. What estimate has she made of the potential impact of the welcome changes in the Bill, and does she share my surprise that the Opposition intend to vote against the Bill? That will upset the Opposition Chief Whip, my constituency neighbour, who has applauded the fact that these provisions will, with some adaptations, enable us to bring the dial-a-bus services in Derbyshire into the concessionary fare scheme.

Ms Winterton: It is rare that my speeches are greeted with standing ovations, but when I spoke to the Community Transport Association and announced the changes that we intended to make in this Bill, there was immediate
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applause. I was quite taken aback, but it showed that the changes we are making to community transport—especially the ability to pay drivers and a change made in the House of Lords to allow local authorities to lease vehicles to community transport organisations—have been widely welcomed by the community transport sector. It is astonishing that the Conservatives do not recognise the importance of the change, which will have a real effect in rural areas. Why they have taken the view that they have taken is very surprising, and I suspect that it will not be very welcome to the local voluntary organisations with which they work. What repayment for the work that people do is it to vote against such a Bill? Their stance will undermine community transport provision when we are trying to improve it.

I shall now turn to the Bill in a little more detail. Part 1 includes measures to strengthen the capacity of the traffic commissioners, who play an important role in the regulation of both the goods vehicle and bus sectors. This is important because, as I will explain shortly, other parts of the Bill will strengthen the commissioners’ role in relation to bus services.

Part 2 will reform the framework for local transport planning. It will enable integrated transport authorities to play a stronger role in planning local transport across local authority areas, by making them responsible for the preparation of local transport plans. That will help to ensure a consistent and coherent approach, for example in planning a network of bus lanes across a conurbation. Future local transport plans will also need to include proposals for implementing an area’s local transport policies, and authorities will be under a new duty to have regard to the Government’s environmental policies and guidance.

Part 3 of the Bill will ensure that local authorities have a variety of realistic options for working with the bus industry to provide the services that passengers want. The Bill will give local councils the flexibility to choose the approach that is best suited to their particular local needs.

Clauses 13 to 18 will enable quality partnership schemes—first introduced in the 2000 Act—to make more of a difference. Last year, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) mentioned, we saw the first quality partnership scheme come into force in Sheffield. This is now delivering a package of improvements, combining new vehicles with measures to reduce the impact of congestion on bus services. Similar schemes are now being considered in other places. However, this Bill will now enable these schemes to cover frequencies, timings and maximum fares—matters that are of crucial importance to passengers. It will allow, for the first time, quality partnership schemes to include “registration restrictions”—the Conservatives say that they oppose this in their reasoned amendment—so that operators who have not signed up to the scheme cannot run along the route if their doing so would undermine the scheme. That is the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) made. The partnerships need strengthening so that they cannot be undermined by someone choosing to interfere in the agreement that bus operators and local authorities have reached.

Clauses 19 to 40 will make bus franchising a much more realistic option for local authorities where they believe it is the right thing to do in their area. We have
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listened to the concerns of local councillors of all political persuasions that the existing legislation is too restrictive, and this Bill will put that right. Of course, authorities will still need to be satisfied that quality contract schemes are in the public interest, but they will no longer have to prove that they are the “only practicable way”.

My hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) raised a point about the approvals board for quality contract schemes. Our proposals would make quality contracts a more realistic option for local authorities, while ensuring that the legitimate interests of all parties are taken into account. If we can do that, it will dramatically reduce the scope for challenge.

The proposals are in line with the recommendation of the Transport Committee that an independent approvals board should ensure that local authorities have undertaken the correct process for making a scheme. Of course, a local authority’s policy—I know that that is what my hon. Friend is getting at—is a matter for that authority and its electorate. The role of the approvals body is to provide a robust check on whether a proposed scheme is consistent with that policy, provides value for money, satisfies the criteria prescribed in legislation and is in the wider public interest, as well as whether due process has been approved.

The approvals process will provide a robust check and balance in the process but will also significantly reduce the risk of a scheme being taken through a costly and time-consuming judicial review. We agree that the process should not cause undue delay and the Bill includes a power to specify in regulations a time limit within which the approvals board should reach its decisions. We understand that the process needs to be efficient and quick. Regulations will include the ability to give an indication of that. However, if months are required to make a quality contract, we need to compare that time with the years it could take for a challenge under judicial review. This is a belt-and-braces approach for local authorities to ensure that they have that security when they make a contract scheme.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): That point goes to the heart of an important issue. I listened very carefully to what my right hon. Friend just said about the processes for quality contracts, but is it not true that judicial review is essentially a challenge to a process that has not been carried out properly? That option will still be open to operators if they do not like the quality contracts and want the free-for-all that we have now. My right hon. Friend has just set out the fact that the approvals board will have the power to consider issues such as value for money and the wider public interest. Could there not be simply a difference of view between an approvals board and an elected passenger transport authority? The view of the approvals board would triumph in such circumstances, overriding the democratically elected body. Is that really acceptable?

Ms Winterton: We do not envisage that the process would involve a straight yes or no. It could be iterative. We would envisage that the approvals board would have, under the traffic commissioner, an economist and perhaps a transport expert to ensure that it could
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consider the economics of the scheme. Judicial review might not just be on the grounds of a process that was not followed. Other issues come into play, for example when a business can no longer operate in an area. Those are different grounds that could be used. We are trying to have a process that could be iterative at the same time—that is, that could involve discussions about maximum fares or the viability of routes. It is not an attempt to make it more difficult to get quality contracts, but to ensure that quality contracts can work and can be introduced effectively and efficiently without the huge delays caused by a judicial process.

Mr. Betts: I entirely accept that if an approvals board agrees with the passenger transport authority that quality contracts are the way forward, that could be a stronger position to defend if a judicial review eventually happened. That goes without saying, but is it not possible that the approvals board, simply as a matter of opinion, could reach a different view on the right way forward for bus passenger services in an area from the passenger transport authority? In such a situation, is it not true that under the Bill the approvals board could overrule the decision of the passenger transport authority and decide on a way forward of which the authority did not approve?

Ms Winterton: It will not be for an approvals board to design a system for a local area. The board will consider the proposals and say whether it believes—this could be done through discussion—that they will stand up and deliver what the local authority thinks they will. It is not a question of a transport expert going to an area and saying, “We will have an entirely different approach in this matter.” We expect the boards to be a facility that will enable local authorities to introduce quality contracts, if that is in the public interest, as quickly and effectively as possible. It is important that we put in place a mechanism that means that local authorities are not constantly taken to judicial review. I am sure that we shall continue to discuss this subject in Committee, but I ought to move on.

Norman Baker: I understand the Minister’s desire to ensure that there is a robust system in place to prevent unnecessary judicial review, but we also have the hurdle of the transport tribunal. If the approvals board is the external validation process that provides that rigour and defence, why is there further recourse to the transport tribunal? Why is that provision in the Bill as a further hurdle?

Ms Winterton: If we want to be absolutely sure that the route will mean that it will be more difficult to go to judicial review, there has to be an option of appeal against the approvals board. That is why we put that provision in the Bill. It is a belt-and-braces approach. Because one could if necessary judicially review the approvals board, there is a further appeal.

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